Winning: What Awards Can Do for Your Career

Whether you write professionally or for your own satisfaction, you most likely at some point have considered entering your work in award programs or contests. (Awww, go on, you know you have.)

Later in September, I’ll offer tips and strategies for corporate writers interested in entering award programs sponsored by professional communications organizations. Today, a few thoughts on the value of validation and links to writing award programs, contests and fellowships for professional, fiction, nonfiction and screenplay/TV writers.

I’ve been on both sides of these equations: I’m a professional writer (going on three decades); I write short stories in my spare time and a novel is beginning to take form in the recesses of my computer; I’ve won awards from communications organizations as well as writing contests for my personal stuff; I’ve served as a judge for professional award programs.

I have a deep respect for people who believe that writing is its own reward whether someone else reads it or not, but I’m gonna have to admit it: my ego is not that highly evolved. A journal is the place where my unseen writing goes. Everything else I write not for self-aggrandizement, but with an audience and my own skill improvement in mind. It’s likely that writing professionally from the age of 19 has shaped my view that putting work out there for others to comment on teaches a writer more about writing and helps her or him learn how to incorporate feedback and grow more skilled and confident each time fingers hit the keyboard or pen touches paper.

As a result, I think awards and contests are beneficial for writers. Writing mostly happens in isolation: you, your mind, your computer. It’s a lovely boost to one’s confidence to receive acknowledgement for all your hard work. Some programs provide feedback, which is especially helpful and serves as a guide to the judging criteria for future entries.

Awards, Contests and Fellowships

For the writer or communicator who’s eager to find out where his or her work stands with respect to judging committees and colleagues in the industry, you’ll find links to programs below.

A quick word on entering your work into any program (I’ll expand on this further in my post later this month): read and follow the entry requirements to the letter. If, for whatever reason, your work doesn’t have the requested support materials (for example, a beat sheet for screenplay entries or some kind of audience survey for corporate communications pieces), there is no question your entry will lose points – often significant points, leaving it in the reject pile. When I first was asked to judge award programs, there was a bit of individual leeway if an entry was so well done that it would secure top place if it just had a bit more supporting material. Today, judging is based on numerical assignments for both content and execution – followed by some complex mathematical formulations that give me flashbacks to high school geometry class. In most cases, more than one judge reviews the material to eliminate bias.

It’s gut-wrenching when you read great writing, but have no support material to back it up, and have to eliminate entries from the competition. But, this will happen, and it’s better not to waste your money or the considerable time it takes to put together a winning entry by submitting something that doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the award or contest.

For corporate communicators: Organizations such as the International Association of Business Communicators and the Public Relations Society of America sponsor award programs that are respected in the industry. Most of the larger industry publications present awards, as well, including PR NewsPR Week, and Bulldog Reporter.

Novelists, short story writers, memoirists, literary-nonfiction writers: Rather than list every literary journal (and there are tens upon thousands!), I recommend subscribing to the Gotham Writers’ Workshops’ email newsletter. You’ll receive weekly updates on writing contests (and deadline reminders) for fiction and nonfiction writing.

For neighboring scribes in Hollywood: Likewise, there are numerous contests and most broadcast and cable networks offer development fellowships. There’s a terrific blog, “Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer,” which provides an excellent list of links for TV and screenwriting fellowships and contests in the right-hand column of resources.

Sorry, Charlie

“Winning” is not really what Charlie Sheen seems to think it is. It’s not about using your laurels as a chaise longue or a soapbox.

Certainly, there are some awards, like a Pulitzer, a Man Booker or an Oscar, that will change your life and significantly expand your career prospects. A Gold Quill may give you short-term bounce. From personal experience, the contests I’ve won for short stories and essays (which involved publication in an anthology) brought no reaction from anyone anywhere. The professional honors, however, brought me two bonafide job offers and probably gave my resume a slight edge over others for a few years. Awards look good on your bookshelf, too, but over time they gather dust like any other tchotchke.

This seems like an apropos time to talk about winning since the U.S. Open tennis tournament is on. When you watch a tournament match, you’re seeing a small percentage of the time a player puts in. Winning is but a brief moment; the rest is practice, conditioning, viewing scouting reports, some more practice, physical therapy, nutrition, and still more practice. The day after a championship win, a player goes back out on the practice court, works on everything that went wrong the day before, and goes through the same routine of practice, scouting, gym, and still more practice.

It’s no different for a writer. It’s our constant practice of the craft, and the effort to accrue more knowledge about the work we do, that occasionally brings accolades. And then, we sit down at our desks and try to do an even better job than the day before.